Toyko is Toast

Godzilla (1983 Commodore 64 Game)

As I go through various franchises I enjoy going back and seeing the roots for those long running stories. While the early days for a series may not directly affects the current status of the franchise (DC ComicsOne of the two biggest comic publishing companies in the world (and, depending on what big events are going on, the number one company), DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and just about every big superhero introduced in the 1930s and 1940s. has rebooted their universe so many times, for example, it’s hard to know what version of SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. we’re on at this point), the evolution of a franchise can be as interesting as where we are now. You learn about what worked, and what didn’t, and it gives you a clearer view of how we moved to where we are now. “Oh, this story didn’t work. Let’s go in a different direction.” Failure is as much part of the story as success.

I say that, but I don’t want to make the 1983 Commodore 64 Godzilla sound like it’s a failure. It is an early video game, trying to grapple with how to tell a convincing GodzillaThe acknowledged King of the Monsters, Gozilla has grown far beyond his early days as a nuclear fallout allegory into one of the biggest, and longest running, franchises ever. adventure on hardware (and code) that really couldn’t support anything too elaborate. We can view the late 1970s and early 1980s (the time before the great Western Video Game Crash) as a Wild West for the industry as programmers felt around for what they could do, what worked and what didn’t, all while creating play styles for game concepts that hadn’t been tried before. “Can we do this? Maybe. Should we do this? Maybe not.” It led to a lot of odd, but interesting, games that I doubt anyone would want to go back and play now other than out of curiosity (or for reviews such as this).

While we can easily point out that the Big G has been in a lot of movies (38 and counting) he’s also been the star of a lot of video games. The Wikipedia list of Godzilla games is massive and trying to count them all quickly grew burdensome. There were 10 Godzilla games in the 1980s alone. But that series of adaptations had to start somewhere, and we begin back on the Commodore 64 with a game developed by Glen Fisher and published by The Code Works. It is rudimentary, to be sure, with very little on screen action and basic visuals. But at its core it does manage to tap into something, giving players a nearly unwinnable situation and saying, “here’s the big guy, go kill it.”

In the game, Godzilla has arrived on the outskirts of Japan and the Japanese military has to defend against the creature. Japan, and the seas around it, are divided up into a five-by-five grid, and each turn Godzilla will move from one space to the next. While at sea Godzilla will simply move around, but if he finds land he will sometimes rampage and cause destruction to the population living there. The goal is to defeat Godzilla before he moves into the space with Tokyo. If he reaches Tokyo, or somehow Tokyo is otherwise destroyed, the game is over and Godzilla wins.

To fight against Godzilla you have to move and manage your troops. You can move units from one space to the next on a turn, or you can attack Godzilla with the units that are there. Your armies are broken up into three types: planes, ships, and troops. Troops are the least effective against Godzilla as they do very little damage, but they also vastly outnumber everything else you have at your disposal for your attacks. Planes and ships will do far more damage to Godzilla, but you only have limited supplies of them. Every attack will result in some amount of damage to Godzilla (from little to massive) but you will also suffer losses to your own numbers. You’ll need to manage your units efficiently if you’re to have any hope of stopping the monsters.

On your turn you can move or attack. And then, depending on where Godzilla is, and what troops you have available, you can choose to attack by air, sea, or land. You also have a limited supply of missiles you can drop on the beast to try and deal damage. But the big killer is the atomic bomb; you get one of these and if you drop it on Godzilla you can deal a near-fatal amount of damage. The only trick is that the bomb will irradiate not just the square Godzilla is standing in but the eight around him as well. All life within those squares will die, and if Tokyo is one of those squares, Tokyo dies as well. Since the goal is to keep Tokyo safe, bombing the city kills it and results in a win for Godzilla.

It really is a basic game, with very little in the way of visuals. There’s Japan, the grid, and Tokyo. You don’t get to see your troops, or any visual indication of how your military compares to Godzilla’s might. In fact, the only time any other visual comes on is when you drop the nuke (which makes the square it’s dropped on burn bright for a few seconds) and then the irradiated red grid on the squares comes down. Everything else you need to know is conveyed by text and text alone. It’s efficient, in a way, but also very limiting and it makes the game a tad hard to parse.

You can have military units in a number of different squares, but you only get to know how many are in any given square that Godzilla is in. If you have troops spread across multiple squares you have to write all that information down yourself as the game only tells you what’s in the one key square in play. You might have ships and planes somewhere but you wouldn’t know it without having that information ahead of time, on the notes you wrote, since the game can’t convey that to you. It makes the play of the game feel obtuse like you have to know to know, and if you don’t, well, you aren’t getting past Godzilla.

By that same token, it’s impossible to know just how damaged or weakened Godzilla is. I moved troops around, did varying degrees of damage (with a few very strong attacks against the beast) but it didn’t die, and I didn’t know if my massive damage was really all that massive in the grand scheme of things. There’s no health bar for Godzilla, just reports of how much damage you’ve done. I assume there’s some numbered amount of health for the terrible lizard but that information isn’t conveyed to you. So you keep futilely throwing troops, ships, and plans at the beast while he seems to move around without noticing the damage… until finally he just dies (or doesn’t and you lose). It’s rough.

At the same time, though, that does feel accurate to the movies (especially the original Gojira). Godzilla is a force and the military throws everything they can at the beast, but he just doesn’t die. These attacks happen over and over again, and it’s not like the characters in the movies know how much damage Godzilla can take or where to allocate their resources for the next surprise attack. Godzilla is a force of nature, not something that can be codified easily with numbers. While I want a health bar on screen so I can see how close G-Beast is to death, that wouldn’t feel true to the vibe of the original movies. It’s a player usability need that stands in contrast to the vibe of the story.

So in a way, crude and simple as this game is, I actually feel like it nails the feel of a Godzilla story. It’s basic, maybe even a little cheap, and it can be rough to look at now, four decades later. But couldn’t we say the same about the original Godzilla films? Aren’t they cheap, and cheesy, and a little silly now? Fans will go back and watch those movies again and again, but anyone starting out now would likely scoff at the rubber suit monster and his adventures, and it feels the same here. A fan of Godzilla will find a lot to like in the game as it evokes the mood of the earliest classic adventures. It nails it, perfectly. For anyone else, though, this is an old, early game that’s hard to play and rough to look at. It is what it is, and you either see the charm of this early adventure or you don’t.